Emma White Poses on Beam

Six-Foot Emma White Pushes Through Stereotypes To Find Success at Illinois

Everybody’s heard the stereotypes about gymnasts and their height: “Gymnasts are always short,” “Tall girls can’t do gymnastics,” and “You need to be tiny to do gymnastics.” These are just a handful of the harmful words that gymnasts are used to hearing. But these stereotypes just aren’t true. Emma White is a six-foot sophomore on the University of Illinois gymnastics team, and she’s proving both the stereotypes and the haters wrong every day.

White wasn’t always taller than her peers in the gym. She didn’t notice a difference in height between herself and her teammates early on because she was the youngest in her group and had a little less growing time behind her. Since she was ahead of the typical level progression, she made the decision to switch gyms and pursue elite gymnastics. “I was training 30 hours a week, twice a day,” said White. “And then when I turned 13, I grew six inches in six months.”

That growth spurt put White at 5 feet, nine inches tall at 13 years old. For someone who was training elite gymnastics, that proved to be a problem. FIG allows elite gymnasts to compete under one bar setting, and if that doesn’t work for you, that’s too bad. For a taller gymnast like White, it just didn’t work. “I was legitimately hitting my shins trying to fit a front giant for a Jaeger,” said White. “And so it just wasn’t working.” She concluded that, as much as she had the talent and drive to succeed, elite gymnastics wasn’t panning out.

While most coaches would see making it to level 10 as an accomplishment, White felt as though her coaches saw her elite shortcomings as a failure. She felt a lack of support from them after she was forced to give up her dream of elite gymnastics. “I had to kind of take my basic training that I was given and kind of coach myself,” said White. But coaching yourself at such a high level doesn’t work, and eventually White had to make the decision to once again move to a new gym. 

Once she found one, she got the support she’d been longing for. She felt encouraged, but she didn’t feel as though she was getting the necessary physical corrections to grow in her gymnastics. White was the only level 10 at her new gym, and her coaches weren’t used to coaching to the level that she needed to be to reach her goals of competing in college gymnastics. 

As she started nearing the end of high school, it was time for White to start thinking about her options for college gymnastics. She was good at vault, beam, and floor, but was missing a major release on bars, and that was deterring potential college coaches. While she was getting that emotional support at her gym, she really needed that major release to get colleges to give her a chance. So, she switched gyms yet again, this time in the middle of her senior season. Taking a new gymnast mid-season isn’t something that clubs typically like to do, but White was the exception. 

“Her positive energy adds to any team at any time of year,” said club coach, Tara Pasiakos. “She’s going to bring as much to us as we can offer to her.”

Having a bigger team around her helped give White the confidence she needed to get that major release, and after joining the new team, she was finally able to catch her Jaeger at the state meet, proving that she could do a major release. As soon as she dismounted, Pasiakos said that White immediately turned to her and said she knew that she could do it.  

After that meet, the calls from college coaches started to flood in. White said that about 30 colleges started to contact her, including Head Coach Nadalie Walsh from Illinois. White took her very first official visit to Illinois, and committed on that same trip. The conversations she had on that visit set Illinois apart from anywhere she’d been before. 

“One of the assistant coaches at the time was like, ‘Yeah, like we’re not intimidated by tall people. Like, we have a girl that’s five-nine and she’s amazing!” said White. “For the first time ever, I felt seen and felt valued for who I was.”

Walsh said that other than her routine composition, coaching White is pretty similar to coaching any other athlete. “My philosophy is if you’re coaching the person, you’re building them up to be the best version of them,” said Walsh. Regarding her height specifically, Walsh said that they “don’t make an issue out of a non-issue.”

While White has had to overcome some tough obstacles over the years, she’s been tougher. Her journey with gymnastics has proven to herself that she can truly do anything she puts her mind to, both physically and mentally. And now, she gets to be an inspiration to tall gymnasts everywhere who are hearing the same negative stereotypes that she did when she was a kid. Her advice to those tall gymnasts? Just make sure you really love it. 

“You’ve just got to evaluate if you love it,” said White. “If you’re willing to go through that hard phase and even people doubting your ability, the reward is so big.” 

Now in her sophomore year, White is currently working her way back from an injury. But when she does recover and make her way into lineups, you won’t want to miss it! White’s long legs make for some beautiful lines, and she is sure to make a lasting impression on the world of gymnastics. 

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Article by Emily Lockard


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